"One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter": This is one of the more fatuous opinions about terrorism. Unfortunately, too many people believe it.
While terrorism taints all those who practice it, many prefer to trust insurgents with whom they sympathize. This is always a mistake.
Terrorism has never been precisely defined. Attempts to draw a line through the gray areas where terrorists and guerrillas, or terrorists and gangsters, overlap have always failed. Terrorists often are partners in organized crime and guerrilla campaigns can use terrorism as a strategy.
Most people can recognize terrorism for what it is and general descriptions of the phenomenon have been widely accepted. These point out that terrorism is covert in practice; political in aim; and asymmetric — in that the terrorist has few resources and many targets while those opposed to them have ample resources and few targets. Terrorists are also unaccountable as they answer to no morality but their own ideological constructs.
Few insurgents care to see themselves as skulking cowards, which is why — for example — blowing up office towers, massacring civilians, or murdering off-duty soldiers are seen as heroic acts. Those who sympathize with — for example — the Tamil Tigers or the Japanese Red Army, or the Provisional Wing of the IRA, often state that these actions are regrettable but necessary.
Many of these sympathizers are less than objective. Underground movements do have parallel aboveground political arms that propagandize and raise funds. Moreover, ever since Lenin, insurgents have learned that in pursuit of the "higher" truth (their own goals), "lesser" forms of truth can be dispensed with.
Ireland, Israel and the United States are often cited as nations whose birth was facilitated by these questionable means. However, the American Revolutionary War was not a terrorist campaign — partisans on both sides behaved in ugly ways, but this was no one’s strategy. Both Ireland and Israel took hard action to suppress the IRA and Irgun respectively shortly after independence.
Terrorists might be tolerated by some freedom movements, but their penchant for atrocity and mendacity make them lousy nation-builders.
In its annual listing of international terrorists, the US State Department includes the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) and an assortment of aboveground front groups that garner support for it. These include the National Council of Resistance, the People’s Mujahadin of Iran and the Iranian Student’s Society.
The Mujahadin-e Khalq has made much of its record of action against the Iranian theocracy. However, MEK began in the 1960s as a Leftist insurgency — apparently with some Soviet backing — against the Shah.
As widespread opposition to the Shah grew in the 1970s, the Marxism of MEK became infused with Islamic ideology. MEK joined in the Islamic Revolution, but the Mullahs were certainly not prepared to tolerate them either. The survivors fled overseas, or rallied in Iraq — which was just beginning its own opportunistic war against Iran.
In the Iranian Diaspora that followed 1980, members and supporters of MEK spread throughout the Western World. In Canada, members of the group have earnestly solicited funds and preserved links with Canada’s anachronistic Marxist community. They have also attacked the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, as part of a coordinated assault on 13 embassies in Europe and the Americas.
Still, MEK has done itself few favours over the years. Its main base is still in exile in Iraq, and depends on the generosity of Saddam Hussein. By trying to fuse Islam with Marxism, it is not really embraced by Western Leftists or by Muslims. Unlike some other groups, it seems incapable of resorting to organized crime for funding. Its attacks on Iranian targets in the West have attracted little public attention.
So why won’t the Mujahadin-e Khalq call it quits? The attempt by one member, Mahnaz Samadi, to claim refugee status in Canada, suggests that she is not yet ready to give up the struggle — and the whole case rests on whether MEK is a terrorist group or not.
Perhaps her case reflects one last point about terrorist groups… that few of them know when to quit. From Ulster to Colombia to Cambodia, aging insurgencies have continued long after the conditions than generated them have vanished.
There is a trap in terrorism, the self-deception necessary to engage in it means that one can not really give up the fight without victory. To do otherwise means to accept the fact that the cause — and all the sacrifices made for it — were flawed from the beginning. Lacking the courage to do anything else, many insurgents limp on to irrelevance. So goes MEK
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter? Perhaps a more accurate statement might be one man’s terrorist is everyone’s problem.
John Thompson is President of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org